Japanese director Makoto Shinkai has proven what a talented filmmaker and storyteller he is. From his acclaimed 5 Centimeters per Second to his recent blockbuster Your Name.
5 Centimeters per Second was my first Makoto Shinkai experience and I loved it. I immediately followed it up with The Place Promised in Our Early Days (which I must write a review of soon). And then Your Name captivated the world and myself.
Next on my list was Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices (星を追う子ども /Journey to Agartha). In looking for more of Shinkai’s work, I’d read a lot about this film. But in going into it, I tried not to think about any of that and tried to only use my previous three (positive) encounters with Shinkai’s work to guide my experience.
Children Who Chase Lost Voices is about a young girl named Asuna who finds herself on a journey to the underground world of Agartha. She is accompanied by her substitute teacher (and government agent?) Morisaki who wants to bring his dead wife back to life by reaching the Gate of Life and Death located in Agartha.
That’s about as simple as you can get with a plot summary without basically relating the entire film. And on one hand, that’s one of my biggest problems with it.
The film is undoubtedly ambitious. It has an epic scope both narratively and visually. Shinkai’s animation here is a mix of his quieter romantic films (5 Centimeters, Place Promised) that came before and a maybe more mainstream look and feel.
But the story itself feels very much like a mix of several different plots and movies all thrown together without much of a sense of continuity.
Going back to what I had read before watching the film, a recurring comment I saw about it was that this was basically an homage and tribute to the classics of Hayao Miyazaki. And indeed, I could spot many qualities and story beats that would feel right at home in a Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli film.
If that really was Shinkai’s intention, then I think it ended up being a detriment to a film and story with enormous potential.
It was almost as if the film merely checked off the boxes:
✓ Asuna is the likeable heroine who must overcome personal, emotional challenges while also falling for the cute guy from the strange world.
✓ A dashing and heroic young man (in this case two in Shun and Shin) for our heroine to fall for.
✓ Fantastical monsters.
✓ Magical stones.
✓ An emotional and a literal, physical journey.
✓ Cute animal sidekicks.
✓ Moral dilemmas
✓ Visits with interesting locals.
There were times when the film’s starts and stops seemed to indicate the need to check off those boxes. At almost two hours, the film is definitely filled with many events. But there is a lack of cohesion to those events that it is hard not to feel disconnect throughout the film.
Shinkai really has proven his talent in both filmmaking and storytelling. There certainly is a great epic hidden somewhere here. The visuals are there, but Children Who Chase Lost Voices feels both incomplete and overstuffed. And that may be surprising to anyone who has followed or experienced Shinkai’s recent works.